Monday, June 24, 2019

The Doctor's Story

From War of the Maps:
‘People of our age sometimes have the foolish notion that they must prove that they have not been brought low by time,’ the doctor said. ‘After living full and useful lives, they suddenly realise that the end of the road is only a little way ahead of them. They begin to fear that they are no longer relevant. That the world is moving on without them. They believe that there may yet be time for one more grand adventure, want to prove that they can still make a mark and win respect. But an important part of growing old is accepting without regret that all lives end in some kind of failure. We never do everything we hoped to do, or do what we have done as well as we would have liked.’
‘Are you talking about me, doctor?’ the lucidor said. ‘Or are you thinking of yourself?’
‘Oh, I got over my foolish need for adventure when I was very much younger. It is a story of madness and failure with a kind of happy ending. Or so I like to think.’
When she was a student, the doctor said, she had become interested in medicinal herbs. The creator gods had seeded the world with a wealth of plants that possessed healing properties, but only a small number had ever been cultivated, and many had died out in the wild. But now and then a new species was found, or ones thought lost to the world were rediscovered, and after she had earned her medical qualifications the doctor used a small inheritance to fund a plant-finding expedition of her own.
‘I lived for a year amongst the folk who lived in the mountains to the north of this town,’ she said. ‘Although they are a patriarchal people, being a woman turned out to be to my advantage. Most of their healers are women because caring for people is considered women’s work, and while their men would tell anyone about everything, their women confided their secrets only to each other. And, eventually, to me. With their help and advice I found several useful plants unknown to my profession, including one whose leaves yielded an effective painkiller when mashed with slaked lime. And because I worked hard to gain the women’s trust, I was at last allowed to take part in a ceremony they called “Touching the Hands of the Godlings”.
‘It involved the ritual ingestion of a small portion of a mushroom found only in the mountains. A mushroom said to have been used by those who were ridden by godlings when the world was still dewy fresh and everything in it was their plaything. I was inducted into the secret by a shaman who seemed to me then to be incredibly ancient, but probably was no older than I am now. She and the other old women of her village took me into a system of caves, where she and I were stripped naked and bathed, and I was painted from head to foot with patterns of dots and dashes that matched the patterns of the tattoos that covered her body. Prayers were sung, and she led me deeper into the caves, at last squirming through a narrow passage to a kind of cell whose flowstone walls were painted with the likeness of godling spirits: slender long-limbed human figures each with a single large eye, and decorated with the same patterns as the shaman’s tattoos and my body paint. There, in the light of a single small clay lamp, the shaman chewed a portion of her sacred mushroom, and with a deep kiss transferred it to my mouth. It was a solemn, thrilling moment, and it changed my life. Not so much for what I saw, but for the obsession it planted in me.’
‘What did you see?’
‘We sat together for a long while, and when I was beginning to believe that nothing would happen the painted figures on the walls began to move in the flicker of the lamp’s flame. They danced, and stepped down and invited me to join in their dance. The ceiling of that little space was so low I couldn’t stand, yet I seemed to be in a much larger space, and the godlings took my hands and spun me around and passed me from one to the next. They talked to me, too. Or sang. Of what, I can’t recall, but I do remember the feeling those songs and that dance gave me. It wasn’t unique. Many experience it through prayer, meditation or ecstatic trance. Some say that it is the most primal state of consciousness, gifted to us by the gods. Perhaps you have experienced it yourself. But there, deep underground, out of my mind on shaman spit and mushroom juice, it seemed to last forever. A feeling that there was no part of me separate from the world, and no part of the world was separate from me. I felt that I had floated off into a limitless ocean that contained all of time and all of space, and at the same time I felt that ocean opening up inside me.
‘At last it subsided, and the godlings faded back into the walls. The little clay lamp was still burning steadily, and when the shaman guided me back to the cave entrance I discovered that it was still night, and scarcely more than two hours had passed. I wanted to experience the vision of the dance again, craved it as an addict craves soma, but as far as the shaman was concerned it was a rite of passage that should not and need not be repeated, and neither she nor the other women, nor any others I asked in the other villages, would tell me where that mushroom grew. I begged. I tried to bribe them. I tried to threaten them. Nothing shifted them. I looked for a year, walking mountain trails familiar and unfamiliar, and never found it.
‘By then I had run out of money. I took a job in a city in the mountains of the south-west, hoping that I might find the mushroom there, but had no better luck. I dread to think what might have happened to me if I had. Fortunately, I was young, and was able to outgrow my foolishness. The obsession slowly lost its grip, and when I learned that the doctor who ran this infirmary died I applied to take his place and was successful. I have been here ever since, treating the townspeople as best I can and cultivating a little herb garden, and have never regretted it. And there is the happy ending.’


Anonymous William Donelson said...

Lovely, Paul. Very Castaneda. Thank you

June 28, 2019 3:39 pm  

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